Ys Book I & II (TurboGrafx-16)

I hear boob orbs are going to be all the rage this summer.

Precious few entries in the role playing canon are as revered as Nihon Falcom’s Ys I and II. Originally released for NEC PC-8801 computer systems in 1987 and 1988, respectively, Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished and Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter kicked off a series that’s still going strong and have been ported and remade enough times to give the makers of Doom and Street Fighter II pause.

Looking back, it’s easy to see why. The early Ys titles were a major step up from previous Japanese computer action RPGs. Their thrilling combat and stunning presentation made them must-plays for anyone gaming on one of these platforms. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, given that Ys was the creation of Masaya Hashimoto and Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, who would end up leaving Nihon Falcom in the wake of the franchise’s runaway success to make some of my favorite Super Nintendo games under the Quintet banner.

According to its creators, Ys I and II were initially designed as a single game. This conjoined 1989 remake of the two from Hudson Soft is thus less a compilation and more an enhanced restoration. Hudson’s Ys Book I & II is also historically important in its own right, being the second RPG published on CD (after their Tengai Makyo: Ziria) and the first to be given a North American release in 1990. For many players in both regions, it would have served as an introduction to recorded music and voiced cutscenes in video games. That’s bound to leave an impression.

Ys Book I & II focuses on Adol Christin, a wandering swordsman looking the solve the mystery of the fabled lost kingdom of Ys. Interestingly, Ys (pronounced “ease”) is a real place. Or a real mythic place, anyway. It’s supposedly an Atlantis-like sunken city somewhere off the coast of France. Like its Gallic counterpart, Adol’s Ys was a peaceful, prosperous land until a sudden catastrophe caused it to vanish from the world at large. Nothing a dozen hours of fetch questing and monster slaying can’t fix!

The storytelling here can come off a tad threadbare to those more accustomed to post-’80 RPGs. Sure, discovering the fate of Ys and its people should be enough of a hook to get you going and there are a couple of effective twists along the way. Don’t expect much in the way of characterization, though. Adol is the very model of a silent protagonist and his villains are “evil for evil’s sake” types mostly content to wait patiently at home until it’s their turn to eat sword. Hudson Soft was clearly banking on the bleeding edge CD soundtrack and anime cinematics to lend some gravitas to this material. Fortunately, it worked.

The impact of the audio in particular can’t be overstated. Ryo Yonemitsu’s soaring arrangements of tracks composed by Yuzo Koshiro, Mieko Ishikawa, and Hideya Nagata are strong contenders for the finest music heard in any game up to this point. They’re about 50% serene, atmosphere pieces you’d expect from a fantasy game and 50% energetic ’80s synth rock punctuated by frenzied Yngwie Malmsteen style guitar shredding. Legendary.

Similar care care went into the story sequences and their English localization. Voice work in early TurboGrafx-CD games tended to range from slightly amateurish and goofy (Valis II) to brain-meltingly absurd (Last Alert). The Ys team wisely hired professional actors like Alan Oppenheimer and Thomas Haden Church, resulting in line readings that largely hold up today. If there’s one major weakness of the English dialogue, it’s the way every enemy character in the game is referred to as a “goon” by NPCs. It doesn’t matter if they’re talking about evil wizards, slime monsters, or the walking dead, they’re all a bunch of goons, apparently. Such an odd scripting choice.

I wouldn’t want to leave you with the impression that Ys is all flash, however. This is one exciting action RPG, primarily due to the one thing I expected to dislike most going in: The bump combat. That’s right, using Adol’s sword requires no button presses. Instead, he simply rams into foes to deal damage. There is a degree of skill involved, as touching monsters from the side or from behind will result in more damage for them and less (or none) for Adol. This was a common mechanic in old Japanese computer RPGs, although Western audiences mostly know and loathe it from the ill-fated NES port of T&E Soft’s Hydlide. The key difference is that while Hydlide is a slow, generally clunky little game, the fighting in Ys is impressively fast and smooth. Adol can really haul ass, and mowing down an entire line of baddies without missing a step feels amazing.

Ys’ take on bump combat is so superb, in fact, that it indirectly gives rise to the first of my two major complaints. The opening act of Book II introduces a magic system and grants Adol a projectile fireball attack with practically unlimited shots. Enemies in Book II tend to inflict huge damage if you misjudge the timing of your bump attacks. In effect, this heavily incentivizes you to forsake the awesome swordplay in favor of less satisfying fireball lobbing from that point on. Why would the designers want this? Beats me.

I was also let down by the final dungeons. They’re not bad per se, just ungodly long. The last dungeon in any RPG is almost always the longest and most challenging, of course, but Nihon Falcom really took it to the extreme here. You reach these areas (Darm Tower and Solomon Shrine) at around the halfway mark in each game. After that, you’re effectively done exploring the world. There are no new environments or towns awaiting you and little new art or music. Tracking and backtracking through the same set of corridors is all you have to look forward to for the next few hours. Perhaps this structure is a relic of the limited floppy disk space on ancient computers? In any case, it makes for some seriously lopsided pacing. It may even lower the replay value, depending on your tolerance for monotony.

Despite these few rough patches, I came away from Ys Book I & II with a profound appreciation for what makes it so beloved by fans on both sides of the Pacific. By setting a new audiovisual high water mark for home gaming as a whole, it managed to feel more like a bona fide fantasy epic than anything that came before. Thirty years on, it stands tall as a good-looking game filled with incredible music and brisk, addicting action. It was, is, and shall remain a highlight of the TurboGrafx-CD library.

Cadash (TurboGrafx-16)

Baarogue the Destroyer is ravaging the peaceful kingdom of Deezar. He’s kidnapped Princess Sarasa and spirited her off to his lair in Castle Cadash, where he plans to conduct a magic ritual to join with her and gain ultimate power. The king of Deerzar summons four heroes and implores them to rescue his daughter before all is lost. Fighter, mage, priestess, and ninja brace themselves for the trials ahead as they set off for Cadash.

If you think this sounds like the most generic setup for a fantasy epic imaginable, you’re not wrong. What made this 1989 release from Taito remarkable wasn’t its stock plot or equally conventional side-scrolling gameplay, but rather its format: Cadash was an action RPG for the arcades! Your adventurers explored dungeons, racked up experience points to level up, spent money at inns and shops, the works. Some dual screen cabinet configurations even allowed you to do all this with up to three friends at once. It stood out in a sea of spaceship shooters and Double Dragon style beat-’em-ups, that’s for sure.

This 1991 home conversion for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 was the game’s first. It’s also widely considered to be its best, seeing as the later Genesis edition omits two of the four playable characters for some reason. Commendable as this arcade accuracy is, however, it doesn’t quite make up for the TG-16 port’s lack of substance relative to most of its console native contemporaries. Cadash is ludicrously short by genre standards. Its five interconnected dungeons can be conquered in about a hour, give or take. For this reason, it’s a rare example of an RPG with no form of save feature. There’s simply no need.

What little longevity Cadash has is derived from its four mechanically distinct heroes. The fighter and ninja are your close and long-range physical combatants, respectively. The fighter’s heavy armor and shields theoretically compensate for all the extra hits he’ll be taking. Personally, I found the ninja’s “hang back and lob shuriken” approach much more pragmatic and fun. The mage and priestess are both given magic to offset their relative lack of weapon proficiency. In true Dungeons & Dragons fashion, the priestess specializes in healing and protection spells while the mage prefers to wreck fools with fireballs and lightning bolts. Pity the controls make playing as the two spellcasters unnecessarily frustrating. You select a spell by holding the attack button down as a series of icons slowly cycle by. Releasing the button when the icon corresponding to the spell you want is displayed triggers that spell. Good luck managing this while a humongous boss monster is whaling on you! I can’t help but feel a more elegant approach was possible, especially since the Select button goes wholly unused.

A curious aspect of this iteration of Cadash is its total lack of extra lives or continues in single-player. If a lone hero runs out of hit points, the game is over. Contrast this with the co-op mode, where either player can spend gold to revive a fallen partner. This gave me considerable pause at first, since it seemed like it would make a solo playthrough one hellishly difficult ordeal. Imagine my surprise when the exact opposite turned out to be true. I completed Cadash twice with two different characters (the ninja and priestess) and never once died. My secret? Grinding, baby! The arcade Cadash forces you to cope with some very strict time limits. It makes sense there. What arcade owner wants some punk hogging a machine for hours on a single quarter? The home versions ditch the timer, so you’re free to cut down droves of easy enemies at the start of a dungeon and power your character up well beyond the point of common decency. Sporting? Not at all. Effective? Hell, yes.

As an undistinguished action RPG with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it runtime better suited to the arcade than the home, Cadash doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. On the plus side, the graphics are crisp and colorful, the music is decent, and any kind of two-player simultaneous functionality is always a rare boon in a game like this. One final thing I enjoyed was the text by Working Designs. For those unacquainted with the company, they handled English language translation and localization duties on behalf of numerous Japanese game publishers between 1991 and 2004. Their work is controversial within the classic gaming community due to their tendency to insert absurd gags and anachronistic pop culture references into their scripts at every opportunity. Some find this relentless goofiness compromises authenticity and dulls the impact of serious moments. Others get a kick of out of filthy innuendo and fossilized O.J. Simpson jokes. Depending on the game, I could go either way. I think it works in this context. Cadash has so little story to begin with, and what is present is pure cliché. Having the villain name check Carl Sagan in his pre-fight monologue may be ridiculous, but you can’t accuse Working Designs of undermining great drama here.

Ultimately, I can recommend this one for a quick burst of casual monster bashing, particularly if you can rope a second player into it. It’s likely too brief and basic to hold your attention for long, though, and it’s hardly worth the mad sums authentic copies command on the secondary market these days. Keep those expectations in check and you should be fine. Cadash is here for a good time, not a long time.

Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (Game Boy)

So that’s why they call him Kid Icarus! It finally makes sense!

I’ve always been partial to Nintendo’s Kid Icarus. Rough around the edges and quirky to a fault, it’s clearly the odd man out alongside its fellow 1986 alumni Metroid and The Legend of Zelda. Regardless, its satisfying challenge and screwball take on Greek mythology are enough to keep me coming back for another playthrough at least every other year or so. A flawed NES classic, but a classic nonetheless.

Nintendo themselves don’t seem to share my enthusiasm for the property. They were in no rush to continue the saga, and when they finally did, in the form of 1991’s Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters, they seemingly sunk the bare minimum of effort and resources into it. OMaM is a Game Boy exclusive that never saw a physical release in Japan. What’s more, much of the work on it was farmed out to Tose, a prolific “ghost developer” with a spotty at best track record. Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, OMaM is anything but. It’s a worthy follow-up, albeit one which adds so little to the formula that it feels more like a handheld expansion pack for the ’86 game than a true sequel.

Winged warrior Pit returns to defend Angel Land at the behest of the goddess Palutena. The threat this time is a demon named Orcos, and stopping him will require recovering the same three sacred treasures as last time in essentially the same manner. Like the original, OMaM is a side-view action-platformer with very light exploration and RPG elements. Pit’s odyssey is divided up into an underworld, a surface world, and a sky world. Each world consists of three linear stages capped off by a maze-like fortress where a boss guards ones of the treasures. Once he’s gathered all three, all that remains is for Pit to equip them for a major power boost before heading off to the final confrontation.

What about those RPG elements? Well, the points gained by killing enemies function as experience, increasing Pit’s maximum health at certain preset thresholds. Every level also contains numerous doors. These can lead to strength upgrades for Pit’s primary weapon (a bow), new weapons entirely, shops where he can spend in-game currency on various goods, health-restoring hot springs, and more. It’s no Final Fantasy, just enough to allow for a pleasing sense of discovery and character growth throughout.

Everything I’ve described so far is a carbon copy of the NES game. Does OMaM bring anything new to the table? Yes. A couple things, actually. Too bad I came away largely indifferent to one of them and let down by the other.

The secret doors are fairly innocuous. Pit can uncover these by striking at suspicious walls with hammers and will usually be rewarded for it with some extra goodies or healing. Nothing in these chambers is required to finish the game, however, so there’s no need to fret if you miss a few.

More questionable in my view is the decision to remove falling deaths entirely. The first Kid Icarus is renowned for its high stakes platforming, particularly in vertically scrolling areas, where touching the bottom of the screen at any point spells Pit’s doom. A lot of players understandably loathe this design choice, since one missed jump is all it takes to force a restart of the current stage. Not me, though. One man’s unwelcome stress is another’s thrilling suspense, after all. Climbing higher and higher, making death-defying leaps between minuscule platforms as I fend off a constant stream of flying enemies is my idea of a great time. By contrast, falling in OMaM is a non-event. Pit will simply land on a slightly lower platform and you’ll have the opportunity to try the same section again right away. While I do understand why some prefer this more forgiving approach, give me the added tension any day.

Apart from the handful of hidden doors and the reduced difficulty, Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters is effectively pure retread. Fine by me! I’m a simple man, and more of a game I already love is an easy sell, especially when it looks and sounds fantastic by Game Boy standards. So long as I can still get transformed into a sentient eggplant with legs, I’m down.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden (Super Nintendo)

Who’s ready to dive into what may be the strangest game in the Super Nintendo library? I’m not sure I am, but here goes anyway.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is a side-scrolling action RPG set on prehistoric Earth and centered on an extremely…well, let’s just say “unique” interpretation of the scientific theory of evolution. It was published in 1992 by RPG heavyweight Enix and developed by the considerably more obscure Almanic Corporation. E.V.O. seems to have been heavily inspired by (if not outright based on) Almanic’s 46 Okunen Monogatari: The Shinka Ron (“4.6 Billion Year Story: The Theory of Evolution”), a turn-based game with an identical premise that debuted on Japanese PC-9801 computer systems in 1990. The two are so similar that Enix was able to reuse 46 Okunen Monogatari’s cover art for E.V.O.’s North American release. Oh, and the acronym “E.V.O.?” It stands for absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell. Somebody in Enix’s marketing department must have thought it sounded intriguing. It did get me curious enough to try looking it up, so good call, I guess.

A game about evolution doesn’t seem overly weird in the abstract. Unusual, sure, but Will Wright and Maxis pulled it off pretty well in SimEarth, which isn’t remembered as a particularly bizarre exercise. The creators of E.V.O. weren’t as content to play things by the biology book, however, so expect to be served up mystic mumbo jumbo, half-baked sci-fi, and a side of gossiping cucumbers with your Darwin.

To give you an idea what you’re in for, the story proper begins with a sentient Sun telling its daughter the Earth (personified by nude anime girl Gaia) that the various life forms on her surface must compete to see which is the most fit to survive. The winner of this eons-long struggle will get to dwell in an ill-defined Eden as Gaia’s partner and implied mate. The player then assumes the role of a puny fish who must eat as much of his fellow sea life as possible in order to gain enough “evo points” to move onto land. Once there, he’ll continue devouring and developing over four additional geologic epochs before finally taking his place by Gaia’s side. In other words, this is a game where you play as a super horny and amoral fish who commits mass murder in hopes of impressing a goddess’ dad enough to be allowed to bang her. Hey, at least you’re not rescuing another princess.

All kidding aside for the moment, I wouldn’t want to be misconstrued as condemning E.V.O. for attempting something completely different. On the contrary, its surreal, meandering plot, delivered by Gaia herself and the host of talking animals you meet along the way, doesn’t go anywhere you’d expect it to and is easily the game’s best feature for me. E.V.O. is a trip, pure and simple, and the more games I can say that of, the better.

The next strongest element here is the evolution system. As mentioned, killing and eating representatives of the dozens of animal species you encounter will earn you evo points (EP). The larger and more dangerous the meat source, the more points earned. Note that you can only gain EP from animals. All munching the occasional plant will do is restore a small amount of lost health. Take that, vegans! EP are spent on the pause screen to alter your creature’s form in a multitude of ways. Bigger jaws, stronger fins, a larger body, armor plating; you name it, it’s probably on the menu. Take my advice and ignore the horns, though. They tend to break easily in combat and take your hard-earned EP with them. I have to give credit to the sprite designers for ensuring that any given combination of parts results in a more or less cohesive looking animal. Depending on the evolutionary path you take, you could end the game as a fairly realistic example of a mammal, bird, or dinosaur, a goofy fantasy critter, or even…a human. Gross.

As much as I admire E.V.O.’s unconventional story and the breadth and depth of its character customization, it is one profoundly flawed action RPG. First off, there’s a distinct lack of intermediate goals to accomplish along the way. Each of the five epochs is predicated on wandering around a Super Mario World style map ceaselessly grinding the same targets for EP until you’re strong enough to take on the boss. Thus, the majority of a given playthrough inevitably consists of “walk right, chomp a couple dudes, retrace steps, repeat.” On the few occasions you’re not engaged in mindless grinding, you’ll find the level design to be all but nonexistent. A typical stage in E.V.O. is five or six screens of flat ground populated by ten or twelve copies of the same enemy. That sounds like an exaggeration, right? If only.

The combat isn’t going to win itself many fans, either. Most of the player character forms strong enough to withstand more than a couple hits will be fairly bulky and sluggish. There’s also a heavy emphasis on bites for offense and these naturally have next to no effective range. What could possibly make life worse for chunky, slow combatants who need to be practically smooching their opponents to register damage? Gold star for you if you said “wonky hit detection!”

Sloppy as these battles are, E.V.O. still manages to be almost entirely challenge free. This is down to the ease of avoiding virtually any opponent merely by jumping over it and continuing on your way. We are dealing with miniscule, mostly flat stages here, remember? The bosses are the sole exception to this. Until you realize that any expenditure of EP will fully heal your character on the spot, that is, at which point defeating them becomes trivial as well.

E.V.O.: Search for Eden is not a good video game. What it is is one hell of an experience, and that’s why I’m giving it an enthusiastic recommendation. It wrangles Darwinian evolution, gooey New Age spirituality, laser sharks, space dragons, undersea dance numbers and more into an unforgettable 16-bit freak show with a knack for transitioning from slapstick absurdity to savage nihilism and back again in the blink of an eye. It’s so simultaneously high-minded and silly, in fact, that it reminded me of a Quintet production. Turns out it was directed by Takashi Yoneda, who previously worked on ActRaiser, so I was close. Do you really want to miss out on all this due to something as mundane as lackluster level design? Perish the thought!

Unfortunately, E.V.O.’s uncompromising eccentricity seems to have to worked against it at retail. It marked the end of 46 Okunen Monogatari as a series and it’s tough to come by an authentic copy of the cartridge for less than $150 these days. Personally, I wouldn’t spend that much. There are countless better games available for less. Then again, there are plenty of less fascinating ones that’ll run you more.

Downtown Special: Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki da yo Zen’in Shūgō! (Famicom)

A few years back, I took at look at the NES classic River City Ransom. This comical 1989 beat-’em-up/RPG hybrid by Technōs Japan is a singular experience on the system and a favorite of many. Despite this, gamers outside Japan wouldn’t be treated to a direct sequel until River City: Tokyo Rumble arrived on the 3DS in 2016. Famicom owners got a much better deal. They only needed to wait two years for Downtown Special: Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki da yo Zen’in Shūgō! (“Downtown Special: It’s Kunio’s Period Piece, Assemble Everyone!”). As its mouthful of a title implies, this is the Kunio-kun franchise’s wacky take on a jidaigeki, or Japanese historical drama. If you’ve ever wondered how River City Ransom would have played out in the 17th century, here’s your chance to find out.

I played the original Famicom version of Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki in conjunction with the unofficial English translation patch by Technōs Samurai Translation Project. There is another option in the form of the Double Dragon & Kunio-kun Retro Brawler Bundle, which went up for sale on the PlayStation 4 and Switch download services in February of this year. It includes official English versions of this and many other older Technōs games. Digital storefronts are notoriously fickle, so here’s hoping it’s still available by the time you read this.

There’s a plot going on in this one, although it’s mostly a paper thin excuse to dash around the countryside punching and kicking everyone you meet. Our tale begins with tough guy hero Kunio and his dorky brother responding to a request for aid from the head of the friendly Bunzō clan, who’s taken ill and requires a rare medicinal herb. The brothers set off to find it and this leads to betrayal, kidnapping, and other assorted intrigue courtesy of rival clans. While this clearly wasn’t a major focus and none of it stuck with me, I do appreciate that there’s a bit more in the way of ongoing storytelling here than there was in River City Ransom.

This game’s interpretation of ancient Japan comprises ten interconnected zones. Each is relatively compact, consisting of a couple dozen screens at most. There’s a lot more variety to these than we saw in River City’s various neighborhoods, both in terms of visuals and gameplay. Some are urban, others mountainous, icy, water filled, etc. This allows for a number of environmental conditions which can affect combat. Having to worry about falling into lava or getting pushed around by powerful river currents is an oddly welcome addition to the conventional brawling.

As for that brawling, it’s where Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki really shines. This will come as no surprise to lovers of the series, but it still bears mentioning because of how much its predecessor’s already impressive martial arts mayhem was refined and expanded upon. Kunio’s standard compliment of kicks, punches, throws, and ground attacks can be supplemented by up to 25 additional special techniques and a host of melee weapons. In short, you’re constantly gaining new ways to kick ass. Some of these special moves are pretty dang wild, too. I’m especially fond of the lethal fart that knocks down every enemy on the screen. If you’re looking for a game that pushes the console’s two-button controller to its limits, look no further.

The RPG mechanics underlying the fisticuffs have received an overhaul as well. Characters have the same set of ten statistics as before. These govern health, defense, how much damage they deal with specific attacks, and so on. Unlike in River City Ransom, stat growth isn’t predicated on purchasing food items in shops. Rather, it’s tied directly the experience points obtained from defeated enemies. This distinction is important, since the in-game menu lets you manually tweak what percentage of a character’s total earned experience is allocated to a given stat. If you’re in a hurry to boost your dude’s kick damage, for example, you can re-direct as many points as you wish from the other nine stats to make it happen. Most “serious” RPGs don’t even allow for this much fine-tuning of character progression. Oh, and the last game’s lengthy password saves have been replaced with a battery backup this time. Very cool.

Inasmuch as Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki lives up to its billing as an enhanced River City Ransom in period garb, I can’t say enough good things about it. Regrettably, however, a few of its stabs at innovation turned out to be mixed blessings at best. The biggest offender has to be the partner system. Remember how I mentioned that Kunio was accompanied on the journey by his brother? Well, that’s not just for story purposes. If you’re playing alone, you’ll have a computer-controlled ally fighting alongside you at all times, whether you like it or not. You’ll recruit a whole stable of them over the course of the adventure, in fact, and can switch them out as desired back at your home base. What sounds like a very neat mechanic is ultimately more of a pain than anything. Your “helpers” are as dumb as can be, continually swooping in at the least opportune moments to get in your way, pelt you with objects, and steal your hard-earned cash drops. There’s no way to ditch them, either. Believe me, I tried. Let the bad guys kill them off and they’ll simply reappear after the next screen transition. If a second player is present, he or she will control the other character, which naturally works out much better. This arguably makes Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki more fun than River City Ransom for two players and less so for one. An option to fight solo and devote the extra system memory to enabling a third enemy on screen instead would have been amazing. Alas.

Slowdown is another sore point. The action slows to crawl on a fairly regular basis. The prevalence of this seems to be at least partly dependent on your location in the game world. One area in particular has a very attractive orange sunset in the background and virtually every fight that takes place in it runs at around 50% speed. This is where I ended up facing off against the game’s two final bosses and the choppy nature of the exchange greatly undermined what should have been a satisfying climax.

Though these are significant, pervasive flaws, I wouldn’t go so far as to call them fatal ones. Kunio-kun no Jidaigeki largely succeeds at its mission to deepen both the beat-’em-up and RPG aspects of River City Ransom. It also stays true to the goofy tone the saga is so beloved for. Seeing Kunio, Riki, and the rest of these familiar characters transported into an entirely new setting is a treat for fans like myself. I even spotted a couple of the team captains from Super Dodge Ball rounding out the cast. This is a quality work and certainly deserved better than to be condemned to obscurity in the West over some old-timey Japanese set dressing. Barf!

Esper Dream (Famicom)

I’ve devoted considerable time over the years to working my way through the bevy of console adventure and RPG titles published by Konami in 1987 alone. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, and Dragon Quest had all come out the year prior and collectively hooked millions of Famicom owners on the sort of exploration and stat-heavy games which had previously been exclusive to much pricier home computers. Realizing the public’s appetite for such works was virtually endless, Konami pumped out a good half-dozen over the next calendar year. Some of these (Castlevania II, The Goonies II) would later make their ways overseas, while others (Dragon Scroll, Getsu Fūma Den, Majou Densetsu II) would never see release outside their native Japan. Another in this latter category is Esper Dream, a whimsical and surprisingly tough overhead action RPG for the Famicom Disk System. Special thanks to Mute for the English fan translation that allowed me to make sense of this one.

Your player character in Esper Dream is a young boy with a name of your choice who happens to be an esper. That is, an individual with psychic powers, aka ESP. He’s sitting at home reading one night when a girl materializes from the open storybook and introduces herself as Lottie. She’s a resident of Brick Village, part of the magical world inside the book, and was sent by its mayor to enlist the boy’s help. Seems monsters are running amok and have abducted the mayor’s daughter, Alice. Naturally, our silent protagonist agrees and follows Lottie into the book. A psychic kid and a fantasy quest to rescue a girl? It’s two classic Japanese media clichés for the price of one!

Upon arrival in Brick Village, the mayor hands you a suit of flimsy armor and your first weapon, a water pistol. It’s about as effective as you’d think. He also gives you an important hint about which of the game’s main areas you should explore first. Though you can technically access them all from the very start via doors scattered around town, you’re only asking for trouble if you ignore the intended order. This may be a pastel fairy tale wonderland, but the enemies won’t hesitate to curb stomp an underleveled pre-teen.

The five interconnected regions you must conquer all have their own themes, ranging from mundane fields and swamps to crystal palaces and gigantic chessboards. Each has multiple maze-like indoor dungeons which hold important treasures and your primary targets: The five boss monsters who are causing all the trouble. Keep an eye out for more villages along the way, too. They contain shops and helpful NPCs you can’t afford to skip.

Being an RPG, Esper Dream requires plenty of repetitive combat in order to accumulate the cash and experience points needed to see your hero to the end. Clashes with monsters all take place in claustrophobic single screen arenas where your character’s options are fairly limited. He can walk and shoot his gun in the four cardinal directions as well as activate whichever psychic power he has equipped. Fights typically end when one side or the other is wiped out. However, it is possible to flee the arena early if you can locate and destroy the one randomly determined exit tile along the screen edge. The most interesting thing by far about this whole system is how battles are initiated in the first place. Esper Dream is an early example of an RPG where all potential enemy encounters are visible to the player beforehand, here in the form of footprint icons. Similar to the more famous Earthbound, you’ll never be surprised by an enemy and can avoid many unwanted scraps by bobbing and weaving around them.

Now’s as good a time as any to address those psychic powers the game is named for. Turns out they’re fundamentally no different from stock RPG magic. The first you’ll gain is the damaging Psi Beam projectile, which remains your most useful tool throughout. As you level-up, you’ll unlock six other abilities which let you do things like boost your defense, heal damage, and teleport back to town. They all draw on a limited pool of EP (Esper Points?) which function like common Magic Points. As with the game’s combat, it’s an oddball peripheral element of this psi system that actually manages to stand out. Certain shops give you the option of buying new powers early instead of waiting until you reach the appropriate experience level. It’s unique, albeit also expensive and largely pointless.

Esper Dream has a lot going for it aesthetically. On top of a quality Kinuyo Yamashita score, it shares the same kooky art direction as Ai Senshi Nicol, King Kong 2, and other overhead view Konami games from this period. It eschews the grit of a Castlevania or Contra in favor of bold primary colors, surreal landscapes, and a motley grab bag of cartoon enemies. Pelicans, ladybugs, chess pieces, and moai statue refugees from Gradius routinely show up to run your day. If they weren’t so good at it, you’d almost think this was a game for little kids.

Yes, as I’ve mentioned a couple times now in passing, Esper Dream is hard. Opponents frequently outnumber you and love to rush you down relentlessly or hang back lobbing projectiles at your slow-moving boy hero. Some even abuse an unavoidable full-screen “flash” attack that automatically removes a large chunk of your health if you don’t kill them fast enough. That’s extra bad news because killing anything fast is no mean feat. Your guns are some of the most feeble weapons I’ve had the misfortune to wield in a game. The strongest of the available three, the bazooka, still requires dozens upon dozens of shots to take down a single late game baddie. That’s no exaggeration; feel free to count them if you like. This is why the Psi Beam is so important. It’s the only attack worth a damn in the back half of the game! Your armor options, with the exception of the Barrier Suit found in the depths of the final area, are similarly inadequate given the amount of punishment you’re subject to. Adding insult to injury, HP and MP recovery items are costly and are only sold in one shop. Said shop isn’t located in Brick Village, either, which is the one town you’re able to warp to easily. The game obviously isn’t impossible. Once you know to stock up on recovery items, save often, and put your trust in Psi Beams rather than your puny guns, you can indeed finish it. I can’t help but feel, though, that the opposition you’ll face in last few area is just too oppressive for the game’s own good. It sucks much of the fun out of things and conflicts with the setting’s cheery tone.

Despite this frustration, I didn’t wind up hating Esper Dream. In fact, I’d say it merits a qualified recommendation. The presention is appealing, progression isn’t overly cryptic by the standards of the day, and the first half is exactly the lighthearted romp you’re primed for at the outset. If you’re an experienced, patient gamer, you should be able to weather the oddly intense turn it takes in the final stretch and come away mostly satisfied. While it’s not about to dethrone Getsu Fūma Den as my favorite of Konami’s ’87 RPG bumper crop, it is ultimately more dream than nightmare.

Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (Famicom)

I can’t believe it! After almost three years spent plumbing the depths of Konami’s near-bottomless well of Japan-exclusive Famicom releases, I’ve finally found one I don’t enjoy at all! Coming off a twelve game hot streak that included the likes of Ai Senshi Nicol, Bio Miracle Bokutte Upa, and Gradius II, I was beginning to think the studio’s domestic output was above reproach throughout the ’80s. Not every such title I’ve covered to date was perfect, of course, but they’ve all made for a good time on balance. Enter Dragon Scroll: Yomigaerishi Maryuu (“Dragon Scroll: Resurrection of the Demon Dragon”), the deadly dull action RPG which manages to bungle or omit virtually everything that makes competent works of its kind so compelling. I didn’t know you had in it you, guys.

This is the story of two dragons, a benevolent gold one and a diabolic chrome one. They were worshiped by warring sects of magicians until the god Narume decided that magic was too powerful a force to be wielded by mortals and sealed away the eight magic books. This act removed magic from the world and caused the dragons to transform into statues and fall into an ageless slumber. All was well until a trio of thieves stumbled on the hiding place of the magic books and brought them back out into the world. This act awakened both dragons and now the chrome one is busy plunging the land into darkness. As the gold dragon in human form, it’s now your job to recover the books and slay your wicked counterpart so you can get back to bed already. I can relate.

The quest plays out from the 3/4 overhead perspective common to many similar games. Given this choice of viewpoint, the focus on gathering eight far-flung mystical objects, and the timing of its release, it’s tempting to think of Dragon Scroll as Konami’s answer to The Legend of Zelda. While this is obviously true to a degree, Dragon Scroll is also just one of many such answers to come flooding out the absurdly prolific company’s doors in 1987 alone. It shared shelf space with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Esper Dream, Getsu Fūma Den, The Goonies II, and Majou Densetsu II: Daimashikyou Galious. All were fresh takes on the booming console action adventure/RPG sub-genres, for better or worse. Sadly, Dragon Scroll has a lot more in common with the listless and confounding Castlevania II than it does the lush, thrilling Getsu Fūma Den.

Dragon Scroll’s biggest innovation, for lack of a better word, is how it handles dialog. You spend most of your time in games like this either fighting generic enemies or hitting up helpful NPCs for hints and little morsels of plot, right? Well, what if you could do both at the same time? Crazy as it is, defeating certain monsters will cause text boxes to pop up that display the same sort of information you’d get from a friendly townsperson in a standard RPG. Why? How? The monster itself vanishes the instant you kill it, so who’s even supposed to be speaking? Were the developers too lazy to add in towns and villager sprites? I have no idea. I do know it’s one of the strangest design choices I’ve ever seen. It’s also obnoxious. With all the backtracking you need to do, you’re effectively forced to kill the same chatty foes over and over again.

Much worse is Dragon Scroll’s take on secret hunting. It’s another of those games like Milon’s Secret Castle where shooting up the scenery to make hidden goodies appear is paramount. The difference? It’s not only your regular attack that can uncover stuff. There are a couple magic items you find along the way which have the exact same effect. This makes for an ungodly amount of mindless “use everything on everything” gameplay. Imagine if it wasn’t just bombs that were able to reveal cliffside caves in Zelda. Instead, some required the candle, the bow, the magic wand, or even some combination thereof. Yes, in one especially egregious instance, you actually need to use two specific items back-to-back while standing in a certain spot and there was no in-game hint relating to this that I was able to track down. If you thought kneeling at the cliff with the red crystal equipped to progress in Simon’s Quest was bad, picture needing to do that and then immediately throw holy water at it. If you’re one of those people like me who prefers to play through games sans outside help, this one will drive you utterly batty, guaranteed.

For fairness’ sake, I should point out that I played Dragon Scroll with the English fan translation by KingMike, Eien Ni Hen, and FlashPV. I’m also unable to read its original instruction booklet. Thus, it’s possible some of these cryptic mechanics are better conveyed in the game’s native language. My personal limitations prevent me from speaking authoritatively on how these design elements were presented to audiences in Japan 32 years ago.

That said, there are plenty of shortcomings to go around here. Combat is stiff and monotonous. The overworld is barren and cramped. The indoor areas (I hesitate to call them dungeons) all look identical and contain nothing in the way of puzzles or other engaging features. Perhaps most disappointing of all, the promise inherent in playing as a mighty dragon is squandered by having the hero stuck as a human for over 99% of the game. He’s able to assume dragon form exactly once, when it’s time to face the final boss. Acceptable music and pixel art are about all Dragon Scroll has going for it. Neither are spectacular by Konami standards, however.

I really do wish I had something nice to say about poor Dragon Scroll. I simply wasn’t able to have any fun with it, though. It’s the proverbial unlucky thirteen, a resounding flop I’m all too happy to put behind me. Good thing I have an altogether more satisfying 8-bit dragon experience waiting in the scaly wings….

Crystalis (NES)

The sprawling NES library has no shortage of high quality entries that, for one reason or other, were destined to remain one-offs. Whether due to lackluster sales, expired licenses, or simple lack of developer interest, the fact we never received proper follow-ups to brilliant works like The Guardian Legend and Shatterhand adds an unwelcome bittersweet edge to the fun. As far as I’m concerned, no sequel-less NES gem got a rawer deal than the 1990 action RPG Crystalis, or God Slayer: Haruka Tenkū no Sonata (“God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Sky”), as it’s known in Japan. Man, what a spectacular title; poetic and badass. I suppose the localization team didn’t want concerned parents phoning in complaints about Little Jimmy’s deicidal Nintender tape. Killjoys.

Crystalis’ ironclad reputation as a cult classic is odd in light of its origin: Legendary action game studio SNK. It actually hit Japanese shelves two weeks before the launch of the company’s bleeding edge Neo Geo platform. Even if SNK was one of the true greats of the 8 and 16-bit era, RPGs were hardly in their wheelhouse. Or were they? For a first foray into a brand new genre, Crystalis’ sheer polish, ambition, and confidence are breathtaking. It’s not a flawless game, but it sure carries itself like one.

Despite what the sword-wielding dude on the cover may lead you to believe, Crystalis isn’t set in the ancient past or some made-up fantasy land. No, this is post-nuclear Earth, ravaged by a massive conflict that brought humanity to the very brink of extinction on that fateful day of October 1st, 1997. Setting doomsday less than a decade out? That takes either an extreme lack of foresight or an equally extreme pessimism. In either case, a century has passed, during which savage mutants have overrun the irradiated wilderness. What’s left of human civilization has regressed to a medieval state and rediscovered the lost art of magic.

The actual plot centers on a floating tower created by survivors of the nuclear war. Its on-board computer was supposed to watch over the remaining people and prevent them from making the same mistakes again. A despot named Draygon and his Draygonian Empire are on the verge of seizing control of the tower, which will allow them to rule the entire planet unopposed through the combined might of dark wizardry and pre-war technology. You control a nameless hero automatically awakened from a cryogenic freeze, apparently as a fail-safe in the event of just such a crisis. Unfortunately, the defrosting process seems to have left you an amnesiac with no clue how to accomplish your mission. No matter! You’re given a magic sword by the village elder right off the bat and basically told to go forth, kill monsters, and let the details sort themselves out.

It’s a sweet setup to be sure, especially for a time when “kill the Dark Lord,” “save the trophy girl,” or both were still the three default RPG plots. I only wish I could say Crystalis delivered on it more fully. Apart from the opening and closing segments, there’s nothing that evokes the post-apocalypse genre specifically or science fiction in general. This isn’t Wasteland or Fallout, in other words. From the time you leave your sleep chamber until you reach the floating tower itself for the rather abrupt climax, Crystalis is every bit a conventional swords & sorcery exercise.

Thankfully, that exercise is a superb one. Many have cited Crystalis as the best action RPG on the NES and, as much as I adore Zelda II, I’m inclined to agree. The graphics, while not the flashiest we’d ever see from the hardware, are colorful and well-detailed. The relatively large sprites for the hero and his many enemies do a fine job showcasing how far the state of NES art had advance in the four years since the original Zelda. The music is better still. Stirring, mysterious, and eerie by turns, this soundtrack sears itself into the player’s consciousness. It’d been decades since I last picked up the game and I still knew every note by heart.

Of course, great graphics and music alone do not a great game make. Exploration, combat, and character progression form the foundation of any action RPG. If they don’t work to draw you in from minute-to-minute, the game doesn’t work. Crystalis’ navigation and combat utilize the standard 3/4 overhead perspective, with your hero able to move about freely (and rather quickly) in eight directions, as well as jump by equipping a specific pair of enchanted boots. So far, so good. All battling revolves around use of the four magic swords you acquire throughout your travels, each associated with an element: Wind, Fire, Water, and Thunder. You do get to combine all four swords at the end, not to form Captain Planet, but rather the super-sword, Crystalis. Sadly, the Crystalis sword itself is made available  exclusively for the absurdly easy and unsatisfying final boss fight, so it’s merely a tease.

Beyond running up to baddies and mashing B to shank them repeatedly, every sword has three different ranged magic attacks achieved by holding down the button for a set amount of time and then releasing it when needed. You have access to a sword’s first level charge attack from the get-go, with the other two requiring accessory items to enable. These higher level sword powers have non-combat applications, too, blasting away some walls and otherwise creating paths to new areas.

This ready access to a wide selection of projectile attacks is cool. It also has the side benefit of partially mitigating the game’s biggest weakness: Wonky hit detection. Getting close enough to enemies to reliably take them out with regular sword thrusts is trickier than it should be, owing to the hero’s tendency to take hits from things you’ll swear weren’t anywhere near to touching him. You often can’t trust your eyes in this regard, making a series of long-distance potshots the safest bet in most cases. This approach is still not perfect. Certain enemy types are completely immune to one or more swords, which can lead to tons of tedious gear swapping or simply running straight past foes instead of engaging with them because you can’t be bothered to futz around with menu screens at the moment.

In addition to your swords, which are really the central hook here, you get an unremarkable selection of armor, shields, and healing consumables. Rounding things out are a handful of spells that allow you to recover health, cure negative status effects, fast travel between town, and so on. You’ll occasionally need to use your magic on NPC townsfolk in order to solve a puzzle and advance the story; a pretty thoughtful touch that didn’t factor into many other RPGs of the era.

So the story is interesting, the presentation lush, and the core gameplay generally fun, albeit with some non-trivial annoyances. What truly elevates Crystalis above and beyond its peers on the system, though, are its pitch-perfect pacing and ultra-smooth sense of progression. This game moves like nobody’s business. There’s no point during the compact eight hour run time when it feels like your hero or his journey are stagnating. You’re always zooming off to the next town or dungeon, always stumbling onto a nifty new sword attack or spell, always being pulled forward by the natural flow of the quest. If more RPGs could pull off this one elegant trick…well, I might not devote 90% of my gaming time to platformers and shooters. As it is, Crystalis and the almighty Chrono Trigger are among the precious few that make it look easy.

Inevitably, the dawn of the high end Neo Geo and its ability to bring the pure arcade experience home shifted SNK’s focus away from experimental RPGs and back to their coin-op roots. The debut of a little game called Street Fighter II in 1991 further cemented this change of direction, leading to Fatal Fury, Samurai Shodown, and the legion of other competitive SNK fighters that define their legacy to this day in the eyes of many. True to its lofty name, the Neo Geo ushered in a whole new world. If Crystalis taught us one thing, however, it’s that no new world, no matter how magical, is birthed without pain.

Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (Mega Drive)

Whoa, what’s this? A 16-bit action RPG? From Sega, no less? How have I never heard about this one until just recently? Probably because 1992’s Tōgi Ō: King Colossus (literally, and rather redundantly, “Fighting King: King Colossus”) is a text-heavy Japan-exclusive release. Not even the 2006 English fan translation by M.I.J.E.T., professional as it is, seems to have been able to drum up much awareness of it in the West. It’s our loss. King Colossus is good fun while it lasts with the caveat that its strict linear progression and single-minded action focus may leave some fans of the genre wanting more.

A major selling point for King Colossus in Japan was its director, manga artist Makoto Ogino. He’s best-known for his long-running Kujaku Ō (“Peacock King”) series. Dude’s all about the kings, I guess. Kujaku Ō has received multiple video game adaptations of its own over the years, some of which (SpellCaster, Mystic Defender) would see release outside Japan. Do actually you need to know anything about Kujaku Ō to understand King Colossus? No. The latter seems to have been a wholly original, self-contained project. I’m just dropping some trivia here for my fellow oddballs who enjoy following these little creative breadcrumb trails.

King Colossus casts the player as a strapping orphan lad (with no specific default name) who’s apparently been raised in a shack in the middle of the woods by a grumpy old hermit. A routine errand to retrieve a sword owned by said hermit from a nearby blacksmith brings our sheltered protagonist into conflict with the cult of the Dark God Gryuud, whose twisted servants have seized control of the land and are ruling it with the proverbial iron fist. Anyone remotely acquainted with basic fantasy clichés can see where this is going. Could it be that our hero has a special destiny related to his shrouded origins? One that makes him the only man capable of sorting out this whole Gryuud situation? The game doesn’t go out of its way to show fans of the genre anything they haven’t seen before and the broad strokes narrative feels perfunctory at best. One point in King Colossus’ favor, at least for me, is that its world has a gritty pulp swords and sorcery edge to it. We get dark gods, human sacrifice, pit fighting, and plenty of other trappings that would be right at home in a classic Conan yarn. You won’t find any cutesy monsters or wacky anime hijinks here.

If the storytelling favors style over substance, the gameplay goes to even greater extremes by remorselessly paring away every shred of the standard overhead action RPG formula that isn’t beating up on bad guys and leveling up. There’s no overworld to explore, no towns, no currency to collect or shops to spend it in, and the gear you’ll acquire is limited to weapons, armor, stat-boosting magic jewelry, and healing herbs. King Colossus teases you with glimpses of a world map on occasion, but this is more akin to the stylized level diagrams that appear between stages in Castlevania or Ghosts ‘n Goblins than a real navigation tool. Instead of gathering clues and forging your own path, you’ll be ushered directly from dungeon to dungeon with none of that pesky thinking required.

The dungeons themselves don’t offer much in the way of puzzles and are primarily “hack your way to the boss” affairs with a side of basic platforming. At least the combat itself is fairly well-realized. You’re able to bring the pain with an assortment of swords, spears, axes, chains, crossbows, and magic staves. Each weapon type has its own distinct feel and is quite useful against the enemy horde, with one glaring exception: Swords. The swords are bloody awful in this game. They have virtually no reach, which makes getting close enough to land a hit with one a significant, yet completely unnecessary risk. This flaw would be easier to overlook altogether if the game’s plot didn’t make such a big deal out of one specific magic sword with a special connection to the main character’s backstory. You go on a quest to get it, another quest to power it up, and you’re still likely to let it sit in your inventory unused. If I wanted to be a real highfalutin’ game critic for once, I could totally call ludonarrative dissonance on this one. In the interest of not asphyxiating on my own farts, however, I’ll stick with declaring it a missed opportunity.

There’s a small selection of magic at your command, too; five spells in all. You have a couple of direct damage dealers, an energy shield, a utilitarian warp back to the start of the current dungeon, and, most importantly, Time Stop. Time Stop makes for an auto-win against pretty much anything, allowing you to pile hit after hit on the defenseless opposition. It even works on bosses! Take it from me: Whenever you’re given access to a time stopping power that works in boss fights (Kick Master, Astyanax), you save all your magic points for that if you know what’s good for you. Strangely, you have access to all five of your powers from the very start of the game. While you do earn more magic points as you level-up, making it possible to cast spells more frequently, you’ll never learn an entirely new one. Instead, your character growth is purely numeric, which is another missed opportunity in my book. Fighting your way through dungeons feels about the same at level twenty as it does at level one.

Those last four paragraphs may read like one huge extended windup before I finally come down hard on King Colossus and tell you that it’s just not worth your time. Hardly! Sure, the story is trite and the RPG gameplay has been simplified to the utmost. Thankfully, though, the core hack and slash dungeon delving still makes for a decent enough ride on its own and the game’s brisk pacing suits it well. After all, the obvious upside to never having to wonder where to go or what to do next is that you’re effectively guaranteed to always be making steady progress. You can even save at any time, a rare luxury in a console game of the era. Basically, King Colossus knows exactly what it wants to be and doesn’t overstay its welcome. As previously stated, it also gets major bonus points from me for managing to look and sound every bit the part of a grim saga from the pen of Robert E. Howard himself. The soundtrack in particular strikes just the right balance of eldritch mystery and pulse-pounding danger, proving (as did Golden Axe, Alisia Dragoon, and Gauntlet IV) that the Mega Drive sound chip could be as effective a delivery vehicle for blood and thunder fantasy anthems as it was for the heavy metal of MUSHA or the techno of Streets of Rage 2.

So King Colossus earns a moderate recommendation. It won’t exactly strain your brain, but it is a game that knows what’s best in life: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their pixels!

Soul Blazer (Super Nintendo)

The soul still burns!

I’m finally heading back to the Quintet well. It’s been far too long. I guess I had so much fun in 2017, playing through both ActRaiser games and the triumph that is Terranigma, that I instinctively hit the brakes before I could plow through their entire Super Nintendo catalog. There’s a sharply limited quantity of this stuff available, after all. Best to make it last.

My subject today is the studio’s second game, 1992’s Soul Blazer. Despite coming out hot on the heels of their highly successful action-platformer/God sim hybrid ActRaiser, Soul Blazer is not a sequel. Rather, it’s the first entry in a loose series that also includes Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma. Fans have dubbed these the Gaia Trilogy. Or the Soul Blazer Trilogy. Or the Quintet Trilogy. As if all these names weren’t confusing enough, some also point to a fourth release, The Granstream Saga for PlayStation, as a “spiritual successor” and the final entry in what’s more properly regarded as a quadrology.

Each game casts the player as a divine intermediary in the latest chapter of an endless conflict between two Manichean deities representing light and darkness. Much of the appeal for fans is based on the distinctive scenario design and writing of Quintet co-founder Tomoyoshi Miyazaki. There’s a strong focus on religion, death, and rebirth throughout the series. Miyazaki’s overarching thesis, or at least my best good faith take on it, seems to be the need for us humans to reject hubris and greed in favor of humble compassion for our fellow living things before our unchecked ignorance drives us to destroy both ourselves and our world. It was the unflinching way Quintet presented this material; their willingness to confront their audience with somber notions clearly meant to resonate beyond the games’ surface melodrama, that was so electrifying nearly thirty years ago and has since secured all three titles perennial cult classic status.

All this isn’t to say that the Gaia Trilogy is dour or depressing. There’s no shortage of fast action and tongue-in-cheek moments. It’s not even all that preachy, as there’s a remarkable degree of subtlety and restraint on display in light of the simplistic writing and brute force localization practices characteristic of the period. What these games are, however, is affecting. Haunting, even. They get under your skin in the best possible way.

Soul Blazer casts the player as an angelic being known as Blazer (or Blader in the Japanese original). Don’t feel too wedded to this moniker, though. You’re free to re-name him whatever you like. Taking human form, Blazer is tasked by The Master (aka God) with nothing less than restoring life to the world. It seem that Magridd, power-hungry ruler of the Freil Empire, coerced a brilliant scientist named Dr. Leo into creating a machine capable of summoning Deathtoll, “the King of Evil.” Against all odds, this proved to be a poor decision and Deathtoll promptly imprisoned the souls of the empire’s inhabitants in monster lairs, leaving the land deserted. It’s almost like you can’t trust the King of Evil or something.

Blazer’s mission is presented as a mechanically basic overhead view action-RPG of the sort that will be instantly accessible to anyone who’s ever played an old school Legend of Zelda before. He can move about in the four cardinal directions, strafe with the shoulder buttons, swing his sword with B, and fire off whichever magic spell is currently equipped by pressing Y. It’s an adequate setup for the hours of hack-and-slash ahead, but only just. Those that end up playing the series out of order won’t find nearly as much to sink their teeth into here compared to Illusion of Gaia or Terranigma. Soul Blazer’s solitary stab at innovation in the combat department largely falls flat. Spells don’t actually emanate from Blazer himself. Instead, they’re fired out of a glowing sphere that orbits him at all times. While this does look cool, it’s a right pain in the ass to aim sometimes, considering that the sphere is constantly spinning with no way to lock it in place. This is proof positive that different isn’t always good and I generally ignored the magic and stuck to the simple, effective sword for the majority of my playthrough.

So the action here isn’t really anything to write home about. Fortunately, its consequences are. Soul Blazer has a simple, powerful core gameplay cycle wherein every Gauntlet-style monster generator destroyed actually grows the game world by freeing the soul of the NPC trapped inside. That soul could belong to a human, an animal, or even a plant and each one will typically advance your quest in some way, large or small. Being an angel with the ability to communicate with anything living means that Blazer has no problem chatting up dogs, goats, fish, and even the occasional tree or flower. Visiting a new area for the first time and finding it completely empty, only to then gradually build it back up into a thriving settlement one inhabitant at a time as you slash your way through the local dungeon is immensely satisfying. I’d even call it addictive. If you’re not careful, the drive to take out just a few more monster lairs in order to see what sort of character pops out of each can get the better of you. Then, before you know it, hours have passed and you’re rushing off to the next area to do it all over again!

This theme of your hero’s actions somehow resurrecting a ruined world echoes throughout the trilogy. It would also inspire other developers, as seen in Level-5’s Dark Cloud series. Even in its embryonic form here, it’s a potent example of the positive feedback loop in game design. The action drives the narrative in about the most literal sense possible. Simultaneously, that narrative urges the player to dive right back into the action at every turn. The result is an experience more like its predecessor ActRaiser than meets the eye. On paper, each contains no spectacular gameplay per se, but the almost uncannily graceful interactions of their disparate elements induces a flow state in players that renders both much more engaging than the sums of their parts.

It’s entirely fair to deem this inaugural entry the weakest of the Gaia Trilogy. It’s also a mistake to dismiss it as such. Sure, the graphics have that flat early Super Nintendo look to them, the sound effects were lifted directly from ActRaiser, and the characterization of Blazer and the rest of the cast is pretty minimal compared to what would come later. Illusion of Gaia and (especially) Terranigma manage to nail most of the same beats with the added benefits of deeper combat, more confident and ambitious storytelling, and glossier coats of paint. This is all to be expected, of course, as Miyazaki and the rest of Quintet continually honed their craft over the console’s run. Regardless, Soul Blazer is a brilliantly conceived and paced adventure with a brooding, apocalyptic atmosphere that will satisfy genre veterans craving something more than another “save the princess” errand. Play it before its sequels, if possible, but play it. It’s a fascinating game in its own right as well as an auspicious start to a saga like no other.